Education

Improve your brainstorming skills to capture your best ideas

Your next great idea could save the day, but it might never surface if you don't brainstorm. Columnist Kevin Eikenberry shares his suggestions for making brainstorming sessions more fruitful, as well as his tips for choosing the best ideas from your list.

As consultants, we constantly rely on our problem-solving skills. One of those skills is the ability to brainstorm for new ideas, whether it’s with our team, a client, or individually.

Like any skill, we can get better at brainstorming. In this column, I’ll offer my tips for better brainstorming, as well as steps for selecting the best ideas from a brainstorming session.

Better brainstorming
Practice these tips to make your brainstorming sessions more fruitful—and probably more fun at the same time.
  1. Start with a clear question or problem to generate ideas about. If you’re brainstorming with a group, make sure everyone in the group understands exactly what you're trying to accomplish through the brainstorming process. If you’re brainstorming alone, it’s important to do the same. Skipping this step, even if the problem seems obvious, can keep you from finding the best solutions.
  2. Focus on quantity, not quality. The entire goal at this early stage should be to create as many ideas as possible. So at this point in the process, there’s no such thing as a bad idea. To improve our results, we must ignore this inner judge and let our minds go free. Whether brainstorming individually or with a group, it’s important to capture every idea on paper or on your computer.
  3. Don’t be a judge. Once ideas are stated, the group must not judge them. Any form of judgment by the group, be it stated verbally or nonverbally, will hinder the flow of new ideas. Staying positive about the process and all of the ideas is a big key to great brainstorming.
  4. Hitchhike! One of the biggest benefits of brainstorming in a group is being able to use other people's ideas to create new ones. Think about other ideas already on the list and “hitchhike” on them—adapt, enlarge, shrink, combine, or otherwise generate new ideas from an idea already stated.
  5. Keep going. Brainstorming sessions often start with a flurry and end in a flash. The best ideas often come after the initial rush of the most obvious answers. Continue through the first lull of ideas by asking a question or two to stimulate further thoughts. Remember that quantity is important. Both personal experience and research show that the best ideas are often found later in the brainstorming process.
  6. Set a goal. Our minds are goal oriented. By setting a numeric goal for your brainstorming session, your chances of creating great ideas improve dramatically. Don’t stop until you reach the goal—and make the goal a stretch to reach.

Now, select the best ideas you've brainstormed
If your creative juices were flowing, you have a long list. Now you have a new problem—determining which ideas to pursue. This task can be as daunting as solving the initial problem, unless you know how to proceed. Follow these steps to pan for the best idea nuggets and turn them into the gold coin of solved problems.
  1. Clarify all ideas. Look at each idea on the list and make sure everyone understands what each one means. Subtle differences in meaning might change people’s perception of an idea’s potential. Add words or descriptions to make sure there is common understanding of each idea.
  2. Combine similar ideas into one new, inclusive idea. Don’t be too eager to do this, as small differences in ideas may lead to big differences if they are implemented. The goal here is to have a list that consists of truly unique items.
  3. Look for novel combinations or new permutations. As you’re reviewing the list, new ideas may surface as people better understand the ideas currently on the list. If so, capture them. Give yourself or the group permission to find new combinations based on better understanding of the ideas.
  4. Set criteria for judging your ideas. How will you determine which ideas are best or will be implemented? By answering these questions, you have identified criteria you can apply to each idea. Take time to determine the criteria and perhaps discuss how important they are relative to each other. Typical criteria may include: ease of implementation, speed to implement, lowest cost to implement, biggest breakthrough idea, and biggest potential impact.
  5. Prioritize based on your criteria. You or your client may have specific criteria that are most important in choosing the solution—lowest cost, easiest to implement, etc. Using these criteria to prioritize which potential solutions best fit those needs will help you determine the best ideas to move forward with from the long list you have generated.
  6. Loop back. Once you have identified the “best ideas” using your criteria, step back and check those ideas against your original question or problem statement. Make sure the ideas selected will really help you solve your problem or work through the situation you identified.
  7. Decide on first steps. Now you have ideas ready to implement. While you have the group together, or before you finish working alone, take time to determine the first steps needed to implement the ideas.

These steps will help you select and apply the best ideas from those you’ve generated. Brainstorming is only the fuel for creative solutions; selecting the best ideas is the end goal. Use these steps the next time you have a list of ideas, and watch your resulting solutions improve—and your clients smile.

Kevin Eikenberry is president of the Discian Group, a learning consulting company in Indianapolis. If you have comments or questions for Kevin, e-mail them to us.

Do you conduct brainstorming sessions with your own team or with clients? Are these sessions productive? Post a comment below or send us a note.
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